In Formation: The Northwest Staging Route

In the past few posts we told you about our P-39 restoration project and Stan Reynold’s connection to one particular Airacobra. This final part in the series, written by historian Neil Taylor,  provides an overview of the Northwest Staging Route, a little known tale of Edmonton’s major role in World War II.

Grant McConachie, a young lad growing up in Edmonton during the 1920s, was fascinated by airplanes and spent much of his youth hanging around Blatchford Field. He recognized the potential of aviation, obtained his pilot’s licence and got his first pilot’s job flying fish out of northern lakes. A true entrepreneur, he formed his own company, United Air Transport, in 1933 and began hauling freight across the northern forests. But his dreams were bigger and one of them was to someday establish an air route from western Canada through Alaska and Russia to China. Little did he know that the Second World War would bring this dream to reality, but for military not commercial purposes.

In the years before the Second World War, McConachie grew his business, and in July 1936 he pioneered an aerial route from Edmonton to the Yukon. The following year he launched a weekly air mail service between Edmonton and Whitehorse with stops in Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and Watson Lake. These flights utilized ski- or float-equipped aircraft, but McConachie was interested in year-round service so he began clearing airstrips at Fort St. John and Fort Nelson.

As war clouds gathered, the Canadian government recognized how ill-prepared it was for conflict. Years of neglect had reduced the capability of the nation’s armed forces. Canada clearly needed to increase its military manpower and supporting infrastructure.

Mobilization efforts immediately got under way and in 1940, the Canadian and American governments created the Permanent Joint Board on Defence to coordinate North American defence policy (despite U. S. neutrality at the time). By the end of the year, the Board had recommended development of a Northwest Staging Route to more easily move aircraft to Alaska in the event the United States entered the war. They chose the route already being used by McConachie’s aircraft.

Map of the Northwest Staging Route

In February 1941, the Canadian Department of Transport took over construction of McConachie’s airstrips at Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and Watson Lake while improving Grande Prairie and Whitehorse airfields. Meanwhile the United States expanded bases in Alaska. In June, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and within months had reached the outskirts of Moscow. Afraid the Soviet Union might fall without Allied aid, the United States and Great Britain began discussing a military lend lease program with the Soviets. On October 1, 1941, the three countries signed a protocol authorizing the shipment of large quantities of war materiels to the Soviets.

The urgency of developing an air route to Alaska was reinforced by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The pace of construction along the Northwest Staging Route quickened in response to American demands.

By April 1942, Canada realized that American financial assistance and manpower were needed to complete the Northwest Staging Route airfields, and on June 20, 1942 the United States Army Air Force activated the Air Transport Command (ATC). The 7th Ferrying Group moved to Great Falls, Montana to oversee ferrying flights along the route which now ran from Great Falls, through Edmonton, across northern British Columbia and the Yukon to the Alaskan airfields of Big Delta and Ladd Field.

Aircraft were now regularly flying the route to build-up American military forces in Alaska, but the Soviets balked at allowing Americans to fly into Siberia. Eventually a compromise was agreed upon whereby Soviet pilots would pick up lend-lease aircraft at Ladd Field and fly them to Siberia. On August 31, 1942 the first American aircraft (five A-20 bombers) left Great Falls bound for the Soviet Union.

As shipments grew, the ATC activated an Alaskan Wing with headquarters in Edmonton. On November 1, 1942 the Alaskan Wing assumed operational control of all transport activities along the Northwest Staging Route.

Edmonton became a critical staging point, and Blatchford Field facilities were expanded to accommodate the Americans’ needs. Aircraft Repair Limited (later Northwest Industries) was contracted to repair aircraft in facilities at the north end of Blatchford Field. Aircraft were also modified to operate in extreme weather conditions from rudimentary Soviet airfields.

P-63 Kingcobras in Soviet markings at Aircraft Repair Ltd., Blatchford Field 

Aircraft shipments grew rapidly. In 1942 only 198 aircraft were flown to Fairbanks and on to Siberia. This increased to 2,662 in 1943 and 3,164 in 1944. Of the 14,000+ aircraft delivered by the United States to the Soviet Union, over 7,900 of them flew the Northwest Staging Route. The vast majority of aircraft delivered along this route were P-39 Airacobras (approximately 2,600) and P-63 Kingcobras. Other major aircraft types supplied included A-20 Havoc and B-25 Mitchell bombers, along with C-47 transports.

With the war’s conclusion, military aircraft no longer used the Northwest Staging Route but the viability of a northern route to Asia had been demonstrated. When Grant McConachie became President of Canadian Pacific Air Lines in 1947 he worked to develop international flights, and in September 1949 he successfully initiated service from Vancouver to Tokyo and Hong Kong via Alaska. Today aircraft fly non-stop along numerous polar routes but they owe much to Grant McConachie’s dream and commitment to make it happen.